Browse Topics

View all talks

Stop Bitching and Start a Revolution

Hannah WeisfeldFilmed at South London Limmud

I believe the essence of what it means to be a Jew is to build a just society. It is both a religious imperative and the basis of our entire historical experience. Listen to me and find out why I am inspired by my namesakes in Jewish history. They had strength of character and were unafraid to stand up and be counted in order to change their realities and create better futures for the next generation. Hopefully, by the end, you too will be inspired to stop bitching and start a revolution!

Hannah is the director and a founder of Yachad. She grew up London and in her teens and early twenties was very involved in the Zionist youth movement  Habonim Dror,  and served as its education director for two years on completion of her undergraduate degree. She has campaigned professionally on a wide range of issues including climate change, the conflict in Darfur and fair-trade. She previously chaired the Jewish Social Action Forum for two years, bringing together leading Jewish communal organisations to develop the community’s social action agenda and also worked as a consultant for the Pears Foundation. She has spent time living and working in Israel and Malawi and holds a BA in English Literature from Sussex University and MSc in Global Politics from the London School of Economics. Hannah is a trustee of Guys Trust, a charity that creates educational opportunities for young people all over the world, and Masambiro, which supports Kunyanja Education Trust, a community based organisation in Northern Malawi.

To be given the opportunity to give the Jewish talk of your lifetime is quite a difficult thing to even know where to start, so I have spent many days cycling to and from work, thinking well, “how can I spend my 15 minutes?” And I’m sure you’ll be delighted to know that I have decided, in the end, to talk about myself. Which I hope you will find it interesting. I was born in London in 1981, March 1981 and the day I was born my parents gave me three names, so the standard thing is you get your first name and your middle name and my parents chose three, wanting upon birth to instil in me their own dreams and their histories and for some reason the standard two didn’t quite fit. So I can recall a conversation I had with my Mum aged about 12 or 13, I think, when I was old enough to understand and think a bit critically about my place in Jewish history and I wanted to know who my parents had named me after. I knew they wanted to give me a Biblical name, they called my brother Ben, they called me Hannah and I have to tell you just as an aside, when my sister was born I was 6 and my brother was 8 and my parents I think as some compensation for destroying our lives with a crying baby said you can name her and so you’ll be pleased to know that 25 years later I have a slightly better Biblical knowledge because to my best knowledge there isn’t an Emily in the Bible, which is what we came up with. So the conversation with my mum I think went something like this, “Mum I know you wanted to call me after someone in the Bible but who did you actually name me after? Did you name me after Hannah Senesh the heroine of the Jewish people who parachuted into Yugoslavia in 1944 to aid the allies and the partisans and when she crossed into Hungary across the border, she was captured by the Hungarian police squad she was tortured for several months and when she faced the firing squad on June 7th 1944 she refused to wear the blindfold, she was 23 years old.” So, my mum said to me, “no we didn’t name you after Hannah Senesh.” So I was mildly disappointed and asked her if they’d actually named me after the literal character of Hannah in the Bible. So I said, “mum, did you name me after Hannah in the Bible? The woman who struck a deal with God because she refused to accept the fact that she couldn’t have a child and she was delivered Shmuel who was the first prophet of Israel who went on to anoint Shaul the first King in Israel”. “No we did not name you after Hannah in the Bible at least not literally.” So i’m sort of scraping the barrel here so I say, “well did you name me after Hannah in the book of the Maccabees who was arrested with her 7 sons, they were arrested for refusing to eat pig which was the demand of King Antiyochus and when her 6 sons were tortured and killed her 7th son on her wishes followed suit and died for his belief”, and my mum said, “no we definitely didn’t name you after that Hannah”. So I said, “well who on earth did you name me after?” “Your Uncle Herman”. Now, I’m sure my uncle Herman was a very nice man, he was my maternal grandfathers’ brother and sadly I never met him but you can imagine aged 13 with these grand ideas of being named after Hannah Senesh I was slightly gutted. The truth of it is I have no idea if this conversation actually happened and I did test this at Shabbat on Friday with my mum and she didn’t actually give me any hint of whether she remembers the story or not. But in my head I feel like it doesn’t really matter because what it signals to me is that at some point I became aware of the fact that I come in a long line of Jewish history and I am one Hannah and there were many Hannah’s that came before me that represented the Jewish people at different points along our collective journey and no doubt there are many more that I don’t know about and certainly many will come after me. But the story of my name doesn’t end with Hannah, I have actually, as I mentioned, got two more and my first middle name is Jackeline after my Grandfather Jack, he died about a year and a half before I was born and about a year after my brother was born and it so happens that both my grandparents were called Jack, but I was my father’s father that my parents had in mind when I was born. By all accounts Jack and I would have got on like a house on fire, I’ve been told that he was opinionated, unconventional, contrary at times for the sake of being contrary and refused to defer to authority that he didn’t agree with, not of course that I’m any of those things, he was born in Germany and grew up in the East End of London and he in 1936 was on the streets of the East End fighting the fascists in the Battle of Cable Street. His Mother was living in Palestine and she was sent by my great-grandfather a man called Wolfbear Weisfeld to marry his brother Maurice Weisfeld after his first wife died. To me my grandfather represented the archetypal Anglo Jewish Ashkenazi story of the 19th and 20th century. My final name is Tziona after Zion and as I said to a friend of mine the other day there’s not that many people who can claim that their middle name is Zionism. My Mum worked with someone, whose wife was born in 1948 and she was named Tziona after the birth of the State of Israel and when I was born my Dad really wanted to give me a name that spoke to him and on birth he gave me a name which instilled in me the 2000 year old dream come true of the Jewish people. And I, there is a quirk of fate in this story because about 17 years later after they named me Tziona they found themselves at a parents meeting for a group of parents who were sending their kids on a gap year to Israel. And I was heavily involved in the Zionist youth movement world and the person running the youth movement, who was responsible for sending people on gap years to Israel, shared the same surname as the Tziona who inspired my name and so my mum went up to him are you related and of course the original Tziona was his mum and it was her son that then sent me to Israel for the year and its already in that year when I was 18 that I solidified my relationship to Israel and its where I take much of my inspiration today. But of course the real question is what about my poor Uncle Herman whose name sake I really am? Well the post script to this story is not really about him but is about his Mother my great-grandma Bessy. She was born in Russia around 1871, moved to the U.K around 1881, she was I think about 10 and lived in Grimsby and she found herself aged I think she was about 40-45 as a widow with three children aged 8, 13 and 18. She was desperately poor so she sent the eldest two, Herman and Victor, my Uncle Herman who I am named after, to America in search of a better future and to look for work and she was left at home back in the UK with my grandfather Jack, the one who I wasn’t named after. So I hadn’t really thought about my Great grandma Bessy to be honest with you until last year, last year my grandma died, she was 99 and my mum began the process of clearing out her and my grandfather Jack’s home and she came back one day with this big box full of different stuff and in it it had letters and postcards and photographs. Inside were a set of postcards that Herman and Victor had written to my grandfather and my great grandma Bessy to say that they were okay and how they were in America and bear in mind that this is the days before skype and Wi-Fi and cheap international calls and it would have been the only way that my great grandma knew her sons were alive and well. The sad part of the story is in 1936 my uncle Victor, who was the eldest son, was run over and killed and when I was reading through the postcards it occurred to me that actually in 1936 my great grandma probably only realised her son had died because she would have found out via telegram, long after he was dead and buried. Which had never occurred to me to ask my grandfather how that must have made him feel, how that must have affected his childhood? My grandfather and great grandma moved around the UK looking for work and at some point my grandfather was living with my great grandma and she was a housekeeper and in this box of postcards I found a post card written by Victor, my Uncle who had been killed, to my grandfather and it was addressed to Jack at 45 Brondesbury Road NW6. Now I knew my grandfather had been born in Grimsby to immigrants from Russia and that he had ended up in Birmingham but I had no idea that he at some point, like me today, that he lived off a road just off Brondesbury Park, he lived just down the road from me. I can’t claim to feel any attachments to my great grandma Bessy, I had never met her and I never really thought about her but when I think about her today knowing what I discovered over the past year, I know that if she could see her great grandchildren, half of whom live here in the UK who are the grandchildren of Jack and the other half who live in the USA who are the grandchildren of Herman, she would be completely amazed at what she could see because to see us have such privileged and secure lives was something she could only have ever have dreamed of. I’m guessing at this point you’re sitting here thinking what on earth are you talking about, and this is very interesting and it’s nice to hear about the people you are not named after and the people you are named after but what has this got to do with all of this? I will tell you why. Each of these stories speaks to me, the stories of my namesakes, about the community that I am part of and I want to be part of creating. From my namesakes I am inspired by their strength of character, particularly the females. The Hannah’s after whom I am not named and the Jack after who I am named refused to accept the status quo, they struck deals with God, parachuted into Yugoslavia, fought battles on the streets of the East End and defied authorities that tried to deny their rights to live free from fear. And contained in my name Tziona are the dreams of my Father and the hundreds of generations that came before him and I understand that I have a responsibility to protect the dreams of those that came before and to build  the future for the Hannah’s that will come after me. When I was Bat Mitzvah I read from the book of Vayikra, parashat Kedoshim, which I have to be honest that at the time was to me a long list of rules, obligations, things that I didn’t really understand as a 13 year old how it was relevant to me. But re-reading it some years later as an adult person with some critical faculty I realise that actually inside the essence of what that parasha is about is to me what it means to be a Jew, because inside it is the obligation to behave as a just person, to look after the poor, to not take advantage of those less fortunate, to pay your workers on time, to treat people fairly regardless of their background and at the crux of it is the well warned phrase veahvta, lereicha cmocha, to look after your neighbour. Today our neighbours are part of our global community, the refugees that leave their homes in search of a safer future, the economic migrants that travel the glove in search of a better life. And in Israel the minorities that live within its borders and its neighbours that live beyond. All of my namesakes were all of those things, they were refugees, economic migrants and minorities that needed protecting. It is for this reason that I believe we have a great responsibility as Jews to build a just society, it is both a religious imperative and the basis of our entire historical experience. That’s what I believe it means to be a Jew and what inspires my personal expression of Judaism. In the box that my Mum brought home with all those postcards was a letter written by my namesake, my real namesake, Uncle Herman to my grandfather Jack just after their mother died. He was in America so he couldn’t come home for the funeral and in it he wrote, “we can also be thankful that despite hardships and physical infirmities mother lived as long as she did, at least in recent years, she had moments of real joy and happiness, what in Yiddish we call nachas, if not directly from you and I at least from the knowledge that we are both very happily married and have such wonderful wives and children and are both fairly well set. My great grandmas dream the revolution she wanted to create, a better future for the next generation came true and I am the manifestation of her dream. Earlier this year I was in the home of a friend of mine and I noticed stuck on her wall was a postcard with a set of words and I was going to ask you to excuse my language, but actually they’re up there. The words were, ‘stop bitching and start a revolution’. And I have thought about them nearly every day and I wasn’t quite sure why they had been playing on my mind and it was only really when I sat down to write this that it occurred to me why they speak to me so strongly. I think it’s for the following reason, because from the dreams and visions of my namesake I make the following observation about what it means to be a Jew.  To be part of the Jewish people means being an agent for change, fighting injustice in the world, seeking a better future for the next generation. Refusing to accept the cards you have been dealt, finding a state, resurrecting a language, it means having strength of character and commitment. Each one of my namesakes looked at the world around them saw what was unjust and what was lacking and created revolutions. Unlike us most of them did not have the luxury of bitching they just got on with it.  So I close by saying to all of you, we should behave like my namesakes did and no doubt yours too, stop bitching and start a revolution.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License